The Muppets and the Street: Children, Fantasy, and Reality

Hi, readers, and welcome to April!

Today, I want to get my meta on by examining television as a text. Plus, this post will be examining one of the elements dear to the heart of PhDs in English:  genre and its uses. The text for today’s post is the Muppets; the genre is children’s television, those with puppets specifically.

Viewers within a 60-mile or-so radius of New York City were treated last year to a documentary on the first half-century of their local public television station, called Pioneers of Thirteen. It contained a lot of great footage from NYC’s WNET (known colloquially as Channel 13). The first hour and a half is a kind of magical mystery tour, from the austere, black and white filmed master class with cellist Pablo Pablo-Casals to useCasals (the kind of high culture for the masses that typified early 1960s public television), to  the pop, colorful world of the later 1960s, in which Big Bird and Cookie Monster reign supreme. (The one on the 1960s can be seen here, and as you gaze upon the picture, remember that Big Bird started life in an advanced stage of molt.) Bigbird1969 to use

Channel 13 takes justifiable pride in its gestation of Sesame Street. The award-winning program is certainly a signal achievement of public television by anyone’s yardstick. It’s interesting, though, to see how contested the development actually was.

Children’s Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney tells a great story about an initial dinner party in which an (unconvinced) Carnegie Foundation executive asked if children could really learn from the relatively new medium of television—at the time, so affiliated with mind rot and wasteland metaphors that the emphasis seems to have been keeping the tykes away from it entirely. Cooney felt they could certainly learn to sing along with advertising jingles. So why not replace ad puffery, her thinking went, with abc’s?

The documentary skips what was apparently at least a year-long research assignment finding out pedagogical opinion on how, indeed, children can learn from television. But Joan Ganz Cooney scoffs at one key finding: don’t, the experts said, mix fantasy and reality. It will confuse children, and it will never work.

Whoa! That observation sent me to write this blog post. I was initially puzzled, because humans and puppets had certainly been paired before. Shari Lewis and her puppets were one of the most popular children’s programs on 1960s television. (For an example, see below.)

In Shari Lewis’s television programs, though, she functions as a type of “mom” figure—overseeing the action of a child-like Lamb Chop (the little girl) and Charlie Horse (the little boy). The puppetry was clearly orchestrated by her, just as the actions of small children are often orchestrated by their parents. (And even if you were a small child and unaware of Lewis as puppet master, she clearly oversaw the proceedings, just like a mom.) In that way, fantasy and reality are clearly demarcated. There is a real person, telling a story with cloth and movement.

The Muppets, by contrast, seem to be in charge of themselves. They are fantasy, telling a story by themselves (often) and interacting with people (reality) not as appendages, but as stand-alone characters. From the beginning, we see Kermit as a reasonably debonair sports announcer. He is by himself, and not only conducting the action but commenting on it. The Muppets are alone or only with other puppets (sometimes), in charge of themselves (seemingly), and on the street, often conversing with people who are kindly, but who do not control them. This seems to be the direct result of Cooney defying the dicta of experts, by commanding her troops to “get Muppets on the street!”

In the next post, I’ll explore my second fascination: why audiences accepted the fantasy of stand-alone puppets (fantasy) talking to people (reality).

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